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First Among Fools

By Renae

 

Chapter Two - After a Time

 

Time had literally caught me napping, as when I glanced back again in the direction of the fire, there was a small group huddling about the Ston’Kinder. I counted several humans and N’relv about six in number, though occasionally one would wander off out of view. Him, I was worried about, as he seemed to be looking for tracks and more than once he walked in my direction only to turn back to the fire.

Each time he started walking in my direction I will admit that I was more than a bit worried. As I figured him to be the tracker of the party, if I was fortunate he was merely a good hunter, if I was unlucky he would be a B’radian. Either way I made sure to close my eyes so that the light from the fire would not be reflected in them. The absolute last thing I needed him for him was to assume I was a dangerous beast, as I did not care to test his nighttime archery skills.

It was with some annoyance that I noted that they were settling in for the night around the fire. Silently I railed at the mischance that set them there. Truly I was not furious at Fate herself, but at my own failure to stay awake. I should have been away at their arrival, though I did take care to quietly ease deeper into the shadows of the underbrush. Life was assuredly handing me sufficient memories to regale my children with, should I live that long.

It was some time before I felt that I had moved sufficiently out of sight to risk standing and walking for that matter; as getting out of earshot was unlikely if the N’relv was a B’radian. If I was fortunate he was merely a hunter, but given my current run of luck I was not counting on it. As such I was using the two moon’s light to pick out the least cluttered of paths, which if you have spent time in a heavily forested region, you know this to be nigh impossible.

I cannot say that I was as graceful or as quiet as I would have liked. However I didn’t seem to attract any extra followers, aside from blood seekers. I made a note for my next adventure to add a small pot of bug balm to my non-existent equipment of the moment. I spent a few moments in futile scratching and then continued onward.

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Dawn’s light found me at the edge of the Color Campus, and once more hidden from sight by the ring. I was hoping with luck to skirt the whole of the Campus without much risk or delay. With luck mind you, though I will say my more pressing needs of nature forced me to risk the use of an empty washhouse. It would surely be rude to leave some poor sot a smelly mess would it not?

I reflected on that bit of humor for a small moment, as such I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. Yes I was that tired; I am sure you are familiar with the point of being so tired that anything is humorous. It was no with small amount of wonder that I escaped the washhouse without bestirring a ruckus. Emboldened, perhaps stupidly so or inspired if you will; I worked my way though the busy campus until I returned to the map table. I glanced around then spent a few moments reflecting upon the marker for a temple that would be approximately at the point where my next ring should be. A Temple of the Moons; I shook off the feeling of being a puppet and focused on the task of eluding my seekers.

For some moments I pondered the risks of stealing the supplies I needed, then chose against it. Fate was fickle enough to drop me on the Ston’Kinder, the next time she might choose to drop me from a cliff. Not one to overly temp her wroth, I worked back out of the campus and back on the prior day’s trail. A day’s passage had not helped the dusty condition of the road, so I wandered to the opposite side from yesterday’s travels. With luck, if a hound were to be used to find me, the hound would follow my old path. That would wind them an extra day or so to my hind trail, of which was no small thing, yet I felt burdened by the extra miles.

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A few hours later I found myself circling around the same encampment from the night prior. With luck, I noted to myself, there would be no need to flee headlong in the wrong direction today. I did note more troops settling in and a rough palisade being built, which told me that they were planning to be there for some time. Silently I cursed my need for stealth, and worked into the deeper woods.

Deeper woods, more brambles and less speed, if this were a trek based solely upon the merit of speed; surely I was losing. If it were any indicator of my prowess of a woodsman much less as what few B’radian skills I had, I should remain in the city for the span of my years ahead. Yes, I will admit to being of a sour disposition, and sore of foot. I made a rough estimation of my past days travels and reflected that eight or more leagues in the dark of night and in the height of fear; was not too bad for most people.

Perhaps I am overly hard upon myself; in many ways I felt the burden of haste, and need. Need drove me ever onward, and haste chewed upon my mind. A horse would speed my travels and yet be more of a clarion call to my presence; it would be hardly helpful in avoiding the eye of every man. As much as the ring would hide me, an invisible man or woman on a horse would surely draw as much attention as if I were naked astride it.

Which is what I told my self over the leagues I had managed to cross before night settled upon the land. I was not entirely displeased, as morning should but place me a scant league or so from my destination, if I read the ring correctly. Surely Fate was not leading me in wider circles for her own amusement? Was she? With those troubling thoughts I tucked myself under some brush to sleep.

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Morning’s light found me wet with dew and of no small amount hunger. I had foraged some as I traveled through the woods the prior day, so I was not going to starve. Though I could not tell my stomach that. It was sure that I was a dire moment from starvation and had no qualms about stating so. It was then that I made a note to strangle the next bard I saw. For surely it was their fault for singing tales of great journeys that did not come close to the real thing.

Perhaps too much of our history has been romanticized, our great hero’s marginalized by the ages. Or does the bardic editing of a hero’s plight allow folks to simply presume that they did not hunger or thirst, much less defecate? Surely one could not cross the breadth and table of the land and not need to eat? But then where would such tales be if they annotated every meal, every sip of wine. Far be it for the bards to focus on the truth for an entire tale than for a few stolen moments.

It was on these thoughts that I reflected upon as I worked my way towards my goal. No I was still yet a ways from the temple, if the small river I stood before was any indication. I should be happy for finding it as it meant I was in truth heading in more or less the right direction. It also promised of a bath, food and drink. In truth though I was slightly annoyed, as the ford to cross it was nowhere in sight. Which either meant I was up or down stream of it. In either case wishing for it to suddenly appear was pointless.

So I took the time and chance to make the best of it. I skinned out of my clothing and left them to rest on the bank. Once past the initial chill of the water, I spent a few long moments in the shear joy of swimming, trying to just forget about how odd things had turned. Occasionally I glimpsed the odd fish, so dinner was at least assured in that regard. Spirits buoyed by the promise of food and my slight thirst washed away, I returned to the bank to wash my clothes and myself.

I had left the leather jerkin and boots safely on my borrowed tarp along with my other goods. I really didn’t want to show up at a temple smelling of sweat and fear from the days prior events. In some ways I must be a spoiled brat or at least one to crave an easier life, I preferred to be clean, to wear fine clothes to enjoy a heated bath. Not to mention I was never fond of doing my own laundry, I guess I was a bit spoiled in that regard. It was with those thoughts rolling through my mind that I became a pair of eyes upon me.

Ok, so I was not the most alert of persons, I might blame that on being slightly fatigued. Or not as my observer was more than likely a B’radian, at least that is what his attire suggested. Though in my annoyance of being discovered I lost track of my sleeveless yellow shirt that I was washing. Needless to say it did not help my disposition.

“Fair be the morning.” I translated by nature of seeing him as a N’relv, forcing my mind to think in that tongue, and looked to where he greeted me from the shore of the bank as I moved to slightly deeper water to cover my nakedness.

“It may be, indeed,” I scowled slightly as I realized my weapons were far from my hands.

I studied him as he watched me, he was not unattractive, a long braid of ebony hair was looped lazily across one shoulder of his mottled green and black tabard, and his shoulders were covered partially by a mailed shirt and a gray tunic. He wore a pair slate black trews and a pair of much battered brown calf high boots. For weapons I could see a short sword and the usual longbow and quiver that were common to B’radians.

Since neither was ready for action I relaxed slightly, although the stare he was giving me was slightly disconcerting. “So cousin,” I called to him, “are you dallying for lack of purpose or merely at a loss for words?”

I heard him laugh it was deep and rich in its tone, and sent a hint of aliveness into my body. “No cousin, I must confess it was your beauty that caused my silence,” he smiled and took a moment to sit.

I felt myself flush slightly. The people were never one to ignore such things and while they were oft to go naked in their own homes. I was not used to such words much less a frank gaze of admiration. “So, what brings you to my idle moment?”

“Chance and a empty water skin.” Of which he tossed to me, “If you would be so kind, I don’t wish to muddy the waters.”

I shrugged and took a few moments to fill it, and to breathe a sigh of relief, as he was not apparently looking for me. “Tis not a problem, if you would toss my skin to me, I need to do the same.”

“Surely cousin, do you have a name?” he asked as he arose to do so.

“Jonne,” I offered.

“A human name for a N’relv?” he asked in a puzzled tone.

“It’s my use name, my own name is for my kin and hearth.”

“You would be a mage then?” he asked then tossed the mostly empty skin to me.

“Perhaps or perhaps I just prefer my privacy.” I spent a few moments emptying the skin and refilling it before making my way to the shore.

“Ah, so where is your hearth then?”

“A ways away,” I gave a rough wave to indicate a direction away from the Capital. I handed him his skin with a slight cough to draw his attention from my chest to it.

“Thanks, I am called Laeolin Mistriver.” He took a half step back and bowed slightly from the waist, when he rose up I saw that his eyes were predominantly a bright green, though the tricolor iris hinted at some blue as well. For an instant his eyes alighted on my navel then he took a step back, “So sorry cousin, I didn’t not wish to seem impolite.”

I glanced down to my anti-fertility charm where the red jewel winked at me. In a timeless moment I felt the odd sensation of someone toying with my world. It should have been crystal clear, as I was hardly a virgin in either of my guises. “Ah, no cause for distress cousin,” I shyly commented. “I have been apart from people for a time, so your presence was not unwelcome.” Ok so I lied somewhat.

“You would be on your Journey then?” He frowned, “Forgive my intrusion cousin, I did not know.”

The Journey was the N’relv version of an adolescent’s rite of passage, much similar to own Season of Colors. Though sometimes they did both, if only to gain an education in our customs or to ensure placement in our forces. Some of the cousins enjoyed the military service as it afforded them a practical amount of additional training different from their home ranges. That I might be on Journey also hinted that I was far from an age where I might dally.

I shrugged allowing his presumption to speak volumes in my stead. “Nothing to fret over, I am not seeking your aid am I?” I asked with a conspiring tone of voice.

He winked, “No cousin it seems you are doing fairly well by yourself. Am I free to ask your destination?”

“I am going to visit a Temple of the Moons, though I will admit some loss of direction.”

“A N’relv lost in the woods, for shame,” he chided me.

I went to where my clothing was drying on a bush and started to dress, “Well any one might become confused when they run with the Wild.”

“Ach, this is true, well if it of no intrusion, you might head upstream. If it suits your need.” He glanced at my weapons and went to examine them closely.

“It suites me neatly, so are you patrolling or just wandering the woods?”

He indicated my rapier, “May I?”

“If you like.”

He drew it and made a few experimental lunges, “In truth I am doing a bit of both. A fine blade, though it seems a bit out of place with your attire and location.”

“My father thought I should have a good blade, and I wished for one that was at least pretty if not plain of function.”

He nodded, “It is both, though I prefer my bow. Of which I would have expected you to have one.”

“In my haste to flee the area I broke camp with but a scant few things, my bow, was alas lost in my flight.” Inwardly I cringed upon my embellishment of the truth.

“If you have need I can part with mine.” He offered, and I was fairly honored by it.

“I should be fine, I can make a Rushes Bow and likely will.” For a moment I reflected that a Rushes Bow was made from a small bundle of the thin river willows, primitive, yet effective and any N’relv child can and would have made them at one point or another. It was a skill I picked up and recalled as a part of a survival course my father insisted upon. “I did retain a few points and cord, fortunately.”

“A true woodsman then?”

“In some ways, my father was insistent that I learn more than baking bread.” Somewhere the truth was dying fast and I was its slayer.

He chuckled, “You don’t favor a life among the wilds?”

“Yes and no, in some ways it would be a freer life.” Much freer, no courtly duties, no worries of subtle machinations and the ever-constant worry of succession.

“Well we don’t always get what we want cousin, sometimes just what we need.” He sheathed my rapier and handed it to me once I had fastened my weapons belt around me.

“True, well as much as I welcome your presence, I must be on my way.” I motioned upstream, “My journey took an odd turn and I need to get back a-track of it.”

“Running is oft preferred to dying.” He noted with a smile, “Still the Wild does seem to agree with you or perhaps if I might be so bold, you beauty only enhances the Lands.”

I blushed fiercely at that pronouncement. “Not overly bold, though you fair do the Land injustice.” In some ways I was glad to be once more in the jerkin, if only to hide my complete embarrassment. I took a moment to gather up my belongings and to redo the tarp into a roll and retie it anew. Once it was draped for easy travel over my shoulder I gave him a slight bow, “Fair travels Laeolin, may gentle weather find you well.”

“I wish the same to you, stay ever safe from harm,” he said with a return bow. “I would be fair devastated if the land was bereft of your beauty.”

“I think you have been to long among the trees if a mere youth of the people can turn your head so easily.” I smiled and yet I could feel a hint of heat in my cheeks.

He chuckled, “You do yourself a disservice, but you are not far from the truth, it has been a time since I was home.”

I smiled at that agreement, “Then go home and chase the ladies there.”

“Perhaps in time,” he said with a smile and overly extravagant bow.

I nodded and gave him an easy wave and then I turned to walk upstream. For a moment I almost hoped he would follow, and yet I heard the soft movement of the trees and knew him to be gone.

For a time I walked somewhat bemused from his attention, as I was mostly sure that I was not the great beauty that he painted me to be. And yet part of me hoped his words were not vainglory or of an idle moments banter.  With that hope I stopped to glance at my own refection.  I blinked a few times as the face that greeted my own was not one I was used to seeing.

Surely I knew it as my own, yet it seemed more N’relv in visage and form. Right down to the tri-coloured irises. I dropped to my knees and looked again, yes my eyes were truly of the N’relv, and my skin colour was a deeper bronze. I shook my head then reached to the anti-fertility charm, remembering the change of the stones colouration. It’s warm metal greeted my fingertips from the gap the buttons on the jerkin afforded them. “Goddess what have you wrought upon me?” I asked the sky with a shiver of worry.

I tugged at the ring of changes and it came off freely, though without changing me back to being male. I fell backwards and rolled onto my side as my guts clenched in shock and some dismay. I closed my eyes and I could feel tears form, it seemed so unfair to have that choice stolen from me. In many ways I felt a bit betrayed and disheartened by it, I was doing what was asked of me, did I need another onus to make my travels harder?

After a time of crying for things lost, a bit selfishly I suppose, I arose from the bank of the river and moved to the shade of a tree. I dumped my few belongings to the ground, and sighed as my stomach reminded me it was empty. Feeling a tad bit numb I went about locating the thorns I had pulled from the Ston’Kinder. If I was lucky, the toxin in them would be enough to stun any fish that was downstream of them.

I took the ball of cord and fastened them to one end, then removed my boots. Once that was done, I walked into the river and I dropped the be-thorned end of the cord into the water. For a time it seemed as if nothing was happening so I moved it into a calmer pool and waited.  A few moments later I was greeted by the sight a few fish floating to the surface. With a few easy swipes I sent them to the bank where they flopped for a bit then lay motionless.

Making the fire took a bit of work, but in the long and short of it I had a respectable campfire. A few branches provided me with skewers for the fish and some time later I was wolfing them down. In some ways it made me feel better for having a full stomach, though in other ways I was still in a sullen funk.

Being a woman, even a beautiful one wasn’t so much the cause of my funk, as was the loss of choice it represented. Admittedly I enjoyed my times as a woman, though I had not really surrendered fully to it in my mind. There were times when being a male was rewarding in its own way, though the same could be said of being female. Part of me was screaming to run home and or seek another Ring of Change. The part that fretted me the most was the need to finish what I had started.

I removed my circlet and tapped it once to return it to visibility, I glanced at the jewel that promised me to be free of magic, and then I froze in abject horror. My world felt like it took a sudden lurch as I fell sideways. I shook my head in denial as the jewels were glowing, brightly announcing impossibility, as by its glow it proclaimed me to be Mage Gifted.

I rolled onto my back and beat my hands against the earth in sheer denial of what lay a few feet from me. “It can’t be. I can’t be a mage, how can I inherit from my father now?” I numbly asked the forest around me. Unfortunately no answer was forth coming from the forest or from the Goddess. I could cope with being a woman, it happened often enough, due to the left over magick’s of the Mage Wars. Often enough there was the need for such, that the rings were made, and available for those who felt uncomfortable with their current gender.

I pulled the circlet to my chest and held it tightly, mourning the loss that the glowing gems represented. I knew my father and mother would love me regardless of the Gift, though I was sure he would be as shaken as I felt. For a time I lay there mutely staring at the tree above me. I laughed bitterly at the joke Fate had played upon me, making my lies of the few hours prior, into truth. After a time the laugher returned to tears.

I morosely reflected upon the laws that protected the people from the Mages. And the irony in by the same measures that protected them, denied me my birthright. In many ways I wanted to chuck the circlet into the forest and let the elements claim it for the eons to follow. Yet I did not, instead I returned it to its invisible state and returned it to my head, as it was the one of the few ties to my family I possessed at the moment. I scarely remember dousing the fire with water before I let the soul weary grief for my losses pull me into sleep.

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I awoke some time later to the complaints of my bladder. Reluctantly I wandered a few paces into the forest to tend to that business, and was once more reminded of my change in more that one way. I think it was a combination of events that annoyed me the most, maybe I was spoiled by my upbringing. Surely I had cause to be angry or at least from my point of view I thought I had cause.

I returned to my belongings and gathered them up again. In some ways I was hoping the temple would be a dead end, so that I could go home. In others ways I doubted it would be, for surely events hinted that I was being aimed in that direction. It was with that slightly hopeful thought that I turned my feet to head upstream once more.

Idle of thought and foul of mood, I wandered slowly until I was jarred from my musings by a command. “Halt,” a stern voice from the edge of the bridge greeted my ears.

I stopped mutely and a tad bit warily as I was approached by a handful of men and sole N’relv. With some resignation I stood there as they fanned slightly about me. “What is this?” I asked the sole N’relv in that language.

“None of that you, speak the language of the common peoples or be silent,” said a solider to my left.

I drew up short at that rude comment. “I shall speak as I will.” I gave a foul look to the N’relv, “What manner of rudeness that you would accost someone on Journey?” I felt the foul color of the day rise up to lend my words heat. “Am I given to think the peoples soldiers of the kingdom are given to rudeness in this day?”

The N’relv colored darkly at the implied insult with a worried look he glanced to their leader. “Sir it would be best if we left her to her travels.”

“I will be the judge of that,” he grunted and a hint of soured wine made itself known to my nose.

I put one hand on my hip and pointed the other at him accusingly, “Drinking on duty?”

“Uppity elf bitch I am the one asking the questions here.” He gripped at his sword as if to reassure himself that he was in fact, in charge.

I watched as the N’relv stiffened in anger then he took a half step towards the man he addressed as sir. “There is no need for hostility,” I quickly commented as the men dropped away from their commander.

The N’relv stopped with a frown as I took a pace towards his commander. “If you have issue with me then speak or get out of my way.” I pointed at him, “By the laws and customs of your land, you are not to accost people at random. So speak man or speak not and get out of the way.”

I watched as his face burned with a ruddy heat, “Be silent.” He fair but shouted at me, filling the air again with the scent of wine.

I glanced to the N’relv, “If he is overly drunk you should assume command and report him later.”

“Who are you to suggest mutiny to a soldier of my command?” asked the man as he half drew his sword in anger.

“If that sword comes an inch further from your scabbard you will regret it,” that was the flat voice of the N’relv. “Thomas, I like you, don’t force me to hurt you.”

Thomas cast a worried look to the N’relv and slowly eased the sword back into its scabbard. “What is with you Viit?”

“Look at her Thomas, use your eyes.” He pointed at me, “She’s highborn you dolt.”

“Aye she is pretty, an what of it? We have a duty here you know.”

He shook his head, “Thomas would you draw steel on a member of your own High Families without good cause? Much less one of ours?”

I watched with some amusement as Thomas frowned as he thought things through then he shook his head.

“I beg your pardon lady, while we do have a duty here there was no need for his rudeness,” said Viit.

I smiled tiredly, “I may have not have been in the best of moods myself,” I admitted with a sigh.

“Journey is not an easy road.” He motioned to his commander, “Thomas is not a bad man, though the past few days have been a trial.”

I rolled my eyes at that pronouncement, “I wish I could say otherwise myself.”

That elicited a chuckle from the soldiers, “Indeed.”

“So what manner of chaos drags you out into the wilds?” I asked.

“Ah it seems some damned fool boy by the name of Ari ran off from the Trial Grounds and the Proctor is of the mind that he’s slightly off in the head.”

I shook my head, “Do I look male?”

“Well the crux of the problem miss, is that the boy evidently uses a Ring of Change at whim, I suppose he’s confused sexually.” That pronouncement brought a rough chuckle from the few men there and a frown to my face.

“I don’t see the humor of it Thomas.” I addressed him removing the Ring of Change from my finger and tossing it at him.

He fumbled about as he tried to catch it, after a moment he picked it up from the ground, “What’s this?”

“Put it on and see, as I had no problem wearing it,” I commented at his wary look.

Inwardly I was smiling as the N’relv gave him a shrug. With a dubious expression he slipped it onto his finger. I watched with some amusement as his face contorted oddly and his body shifted to a female form. I watched as comprehension dawned and she looked down. I watched Viit smirk slightly as Thomas turned pale, he openly grinned as ‘Thomas’ clutched at her chest and squeaked. “I’ve got tits!”

“Why yes you do, pity it’s only a temporary thing,” I cooed at him.

As she quickly removed the ring and reversed the change I could see the rest of his men turning to look studiously at the trees. I shook my head as Viit rolled about on the road lost in his mirth. “So as you can see I am evidently female, even with a Ring of Change.” I held my hand out for the ring as Thomas eyed me thoughtfully.

“Aye, sorry miss.” He dropped the ring into my outstretched hand and watched as I put it on with no change occurring. “That is the damnedest thing.”

“Yes, it is,” I said with a hint of bitterness.

“How can you wear a Ring of Change without it affecting you?” asked Viit with a hint of disbelief as he sat up.

“I wish I knew. As you can see it has absolutely no effect on me.”

“I am not sure that is such a bad thing lady, at least from my purview,” commented one of the men.

“Thanks, I think,” I commented dryly.

“Might I ask your name?” asked Viit.

For a moment I debated on rudeness then sighed, “I am called Jonne.”

“Ah,” he looked at me with a hint of worry on his face. “Mage gifted?”

“Yes,” I reluctantly admitted.

He turned to look at Thomas, “I think you should be very thankful she isn’t vengeful.”

Thomas looked at me and ducked his head in shame, “My apologies miss, I didn’t think.”

“True, but I trust you will in the future, yes?”

“Aye, long and hard miss, long and hard.” He frowned at Viit, “An you, you…”

“May I go now? I have a ways to go before nightfall.” I asked with a hint of impatience coloring my voice. “I am on Journey after all.”

“Aye miss you can go,” said Thomas.

“Wait,” said Viit, “Do you need anything? After all we did interfere…” He looked at the ground, “Custom be hung, is there anything you need?”

I paused for a moment and thought, “If you have a spare bow and a hand full of arrows?”

He glanced at me and nodded, “You are a bit ill equipped for Journey.”

“I was forced to break camp abruptly when the forest ran wild. When the forest runs…” I shrugged tiredly.

“You run with it or die, aye.” The men nodded grimly, and Viit glanced at them, “I think we can find a few things for you miss, if only to make amends.” He was looking pointedly at Thomas.

“An if only to say how thankful I am you didn’t leave me female.” He shook his head looking slightly dazed, “I have a few things I can spare.”

Some time later I was a few pounds heavier, thanks to the contents of the pack that was now on my back. For a time I let the odd turn of events run though my head. Either Fate was trying to make up for her rude surprises or I was getting more help from above. In many ways I was beginning to wonder if having the favor of the Gods was a blessing or a curse. Part of me suspected it was a bit of both.

As day faded into night I was heartened to see the temple was in fact there. Though I had expected it to be in better shape, instead it was a ruin. With a tired sigh I let the pack settle on the ground and surveyed the ruins in the fading light.

I took a few steps into the interior of the temple and shook my head in resignation; there was no way I was going to find anything in the darkness. I turned around and forced myself to relax, I rubbed my shoulder for a moment trying to work some of the tenseness away. “It’s only a few hundred year old ruin, no living souls around to ask for guidance, what more could I ask for?”

I actually waited a moment for an answer, if that tells you of my frame of mind. No I had not gone around the bend, though if you ask me the world was certainly ‘bent’ oddly as of late. I retrieved my pack and carried it into the shelter of the ruins. While lacking a roof it at least had a pool of water in the basin or was it a viewing pool? I tried to remember the lay out of the few moon temples I had been to, and tried to place the various pool locations in my mind. After a time I shook my head and decided it could wait for a fire’s light to guide me by.

With the pack and my newly acquired bow inside the temple ruins I ranged out in the quickly darkening night to find some wood for a fire. I had foregone the comfort of fire earlier, but the idea of spending a night in an empty ruin alone, bothered me. So I opted to build up a fire to chase the shadows away and for the sheer comfort it would provide. With luck the smoke might also keep the bugs at bay or so I hoped.

With the fire built up to a decent height, I took a brand from it and walked out into the center of the ruin.  For a time I stood there and simply let the weight of it’s years fill me. I tried to picture it in its former glory, trying to form an image of what it was like. The fallen stone cylinders could only have been the supports for a vast roof, the slow rise of soil that flowed down to my feet could cover the many steps that lead to a dais and perhaps further on would be the Dedicants Chamber and the rooms for the Dream Seekers.

I looked down to my ring and tried to remember the bits of lore or paths the Dream Seekers followed. The only symbols from the ring left to unravel were those in its center. Two images of people kneeling, hands level with a cup were all that remained to be deciphered. I suppose my deliberate avoidance of all things overly religious was coming back to haunt me. What could I say; I would rather spend my hours in drinking than sitting around waiting from a visit from the Gods or a vision.

Drink. That resonated with my current trail of thought, what was it the Dream Seekers drank or drank from, before being lead into the Seekers Chambers? I had this odd notion about a flower crushed and boiled, not quite a narcotic, as the sole non religious use for it was medicinal, to ease pain from severe wounds. Too much of the raw plant itself and you might dream forever, but boiled or steeped for a year or so in wine, a few sips would cause you to possibly see things. I lifted the torch higher so I could see the walls; something almost white covered one wall so I went to look closer.

White trumpet-like flowers fair but covered the wall, dark green leaves and thick vines supported the over abundance of flowers. I leaned forwards to smell the faint musky scent of a flower, for a time I stood with my nose awash in its fragrance. In my mind I could picture the priestess’ and priests waving a censer about them that smelled similar. Heartened I plucked a few blossoms with a small prayer of thanksgiving to the spirit of the plant.

I returned the brand to the fire and searched in my new pack for the small tin pot that was there. My hand brushed a small flask of brandy and I pulled it free of the pack and set it to one side. My second foray into the pack produced the pot and I set it aside as well. I then moved things closer to the fire. The question I had to concern myself was how much would be safe? I looked at the small pile and thought for a long moment, I was in good health so that was surely a plus in my favor. Still I was a long distance from any Sage, much less a healer should things go awry.

“Fortune favors the bold, yet frowns upon the foolhardy and all things come in threes for good or ill.” Or so went the old adage, I lifted three of the flowers up and dropped them into the pot. After that I poured a goodly measure of the brandy into it and set it to quickly boil. I looked down at the three blossoms that remained and I dropped them into the flask before resealing it. It could not hurt to have a tincture to kill pain handy I told myself with the hopes I would not need anything that strong.

Slowly I became aware of the rising moons, and as fortune would have it they were full and radiant against the night. As the pot heated up, I returned the flask to the pack and pulled out the coarse wool blanket. If I was going to wander the paths of night, it could not hurt to have a blanket wrapped around me. When the pot was boiling I removed it with my dagger as to not burn my fingers, I sat it aside then took a fresh brand and set it to blaze in the fire.

I wandered about the ruin for a time, letting the flowers steep in the hot brandy and to cool. Faint traceries of gold flickered in its light. I was slightly bemused that the gold yet remained, though not even the fool hardy or most agnostic would tempt the hand of the Gods by stealing from a temple. I faintly remembered the horrifying accounts that were passed down as examples of what would happen to those who did.

By mild contrast the fellows whom I sentenced would have lived far easier lives, had they not expired. I remembered one tale where a murder had sought safety in a temple, only to kill a priestess who confronted him. As the story went he was slowly and painfully transformed into a large bull, over the span of a year. At the end of his transformation he was lead to an altar and sacrificed alive and bellowing fear, into a deep pit of coals…  The morale of that story was quite clear, and to this date the unburned horns of that bull still grace the center post of that temple as a reminder to it. You do not kill your fellow man or woman in a temple, plain and simple, much less commit other crimes therein.

It was with this morbid train of thought that I wandered from half fallen room to half fallen room. Looking for a suitable place to ‘quest’ from. After a time I gave up on that thought, surely the intent was all that was needed, for the rubble-strewn rooms with the over growth of brambles and brush did not seem inviting. As I returned the fire the moons were barely cresting the remains of the walls to shine into the temple.

I made my bed for the night a safe distance from the fire and added a few more thick limbs of wood to keep it going for however I would be gone. If things worked correctly. In many ways I was not expecting it to do anything as the few times that I had tried it, I had not seen anything other than old deluded fools capering on in odd ways. Yes I was slightly cynical in that department or perhaps you might say I really had my doubts to the intent of those men.

So it was with some uncertainty that I lifted the cool pot to my lips and drank it hurriedly. Some of the alcohol had cooked off, yet not enough that drinking it was a joy. If you count the astringent flavor the flowers added, personally I thought it was hardly palatable. So after I coughed and gasped and even wheezed a few times, I spat the flowers into the fire and saluted the temple with the cup, “To your health.” I motioned the cup the moons, “To your loves,” I motioned the cup to the fire, “To those gone before me.” I swallowed the last few sips with a sigh and said the last, “To my family and the peoples of the land.” I set the pot to one side, “Gods and Goddesses keep them and me safe this night.”

I lay back on my bed, such as it was for the night and pulled the blanket up to my chin. For a time I lay there merely watching the moons rise and fill the ruin with light. Slowly as their light washed across me I felt a sense of detachment and it seemed that the very stones of the temple were humming a soft yet deep tone. I felt all a tingle, as the hairs on my body seemed to move and twitch to some shift in temperature or odd emotion. I drifted for a time in that moon lit haze then for a time it was dark.

“Ari child, wake up,” a soft voice called to me and I sat up abruptly.

“Who’s there?” I glanced around in bewilderment, as the temple seemed to have shifted from rubble into what might have been its former glory.

“Ari, Ari, Ari. Who were you expecting?” asked a male voice from behind me.

“I am not sure, in all truth,” I said as I turned to see a handsome man and a beautiful lady sitting on a small couch.

She smiled and studied me for a moment, in all fairness words could not do her justice and I sighed. “Am I not what you expected?” she asked and my heart trembled in tempo to her words.

“No my Lady, I am truly at a loss for words.”

“Such flattery, but fairer words are not often spoken of my love.” He paused to kiss her, “Venne my love, if the needs of the Land and people so great I would be tempted to claim this one for our service.”

“Ah Vonne, but the needs of the Land do come first, for a time,” she said and paused to kiss him for a few moments, for a time the simply held each other and studied me.

I watched them for a moment and I bowed my head in shame, as in a great many ways I was suddenly envious of them.

“Do not fret so Ari,” she said and arose to walk to me, for a timeless moment she looked deep into my eyes and then wrapped me in a hug. “We watch you sleep, we hold you in the darkest of our nights, and at times we watch over you in the day.” I felt a second set of arms enfold me from behind and a soft kiss was placed upon my neck.

“All women and all men are held in our embrace, such as it was before time, will it be until times end,” Vonne whispered into my ear. Then they both kissed me upon my cheeks, “Dream well beloved, for we hold you this night and no harm can befall you in this place.” Their voice echoed in unison and I felt myself drift off into sleep in their embrace.

For a time I was lost in dreams that seemed to bear no relation to my quest. Kids playing in fountains, lovers trailing their feet and fingers along the lazy flow of a river. As the night washed over me I seemed to awaken to the same temple as it was before, a lone human female was peering at me from the opposite side of a pool. I watched her drink from a cup not too dissimilar from my own, and then she lay down to watch me from the opposite side.

I stood up and walked to the pool that she lay beside, for a time I was lost in her face and she smiled shyly at me and pointed to the pool. I knelt and looked down into it. For a time she was mute then her soft voice filled my ears from behind me. I looked up to see her peering over my shoulder.

“Cousin of mine, look deep.” she pointed into the pool, then I heard her sigh, “Tis a terrible burden placed on one so young, yet you should bear it well.” I watched as she held a ring before me with her fingers, and then she dropped it into the water of the pool, sending ripples out and then they washed back. “Such it is with time, no event is unremarked, no cause without an effect.”

“But why me?” I asked her.

She shrugged with a faint smile on her face, “Ask Fate if you see her, though you likely know the answer already.” She pointed to the pool, “When you awaken take the ring from the pool.”

“But there is no guide post here, where shall I go next?”

She smiled and pointed to a corner of the temple, where the flowers bloomed. “The flower asks not where it shall grow, but you should seek behind them to see where you should go.” She smiled and placed a kiss on my forehead, “Fair thee well cousin.”

“Fair thee well, cousin.” I glanced down to the pool and tried to remember the location the ring fell for later.

“Oh my time may be past, but then the future may yet see me walk the Land again. As it was, it will be again, till the stars stop and the world ends.” She placed a last kiss on my lips before everything faded into darkness. “Until then, dearest cousin: walk swiftly, act boldly and fear not.” I dimly heard her voice as I fell into true sleep.

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I awoke, regrettably, as my head felt as if I had ventured out upon a three daylong pub-crawl. My head pounded and my stomach, well let’s just say that after the few minutes of anointing a bush with it contents, it liked me again. Though I had invented a few oaths along the way in the process.

It wasn’t quite true dawn, though the morning’s sun was close to the horizon. I sighed and worked at rebuilding the fire to push away the chill that arose from the past few minutes. A few minutes work presented me with a small yet warm fire, though I think the impact of it was more felt in my mind than on my body. I suppose there is some primitive part of me that welcomed the small fire with open arms.

Heartened by the fire, I dug in the pack until I turned up the small bundle of dried jerky they had gifted me the day prior. Not exactly the breakfast of princes or princesses, for that matter, though it might constitute the breakfast of some of my heroes. I chuckled for a moment at that, my life was certainly taking the odd twist, so why not my breakfast as well? While I ate I mulled over that past nights dreams or visions.

I looked across the fire to the ruins of the temple, then I frowned, as there was no sign of where the pool from the dream last night. The basin was the only feature that seemed constant in dream and reality. I stood up and walked to it, trying to remember to place the reflecting pools location in relation to it. The few hundred years of dirt, plants and debris was turning this into a real challenge.

I glanced at the dirt-covered floor, if this were snow it’d be so much easier to find a pit, I’d just have to use a sturdy pole to sound it out. On that thought I fetched my rapier from my pallet and dropped the scabbard to the ground beside it. I walked back to the basin and press the point of the rapier into the dirt carefully; when it met the stone floor I eased back, and pulled it out to repeat the process, over and over again.

Much as I wish I could say the process would have been fast but it wasn’t, as by the time I located the pool and marked it’s edges, it was fully into morning. I sighed with some resignation, if by some chance I didn’t have to excavate the entire pool I would be amazed. I returned to the pack and dug around round inside of it until I turned up a wooden bowl, it was not a shovel but I expected it would have to do.

Scoop, sift, and scoop again. Such was my world for the better part of the morning. Excavating the pool turned up a number of coins, a few gems and some fancy rings. Admittedly it was not exactly unsurprising as it was a common way to anonymously donate to a temple, yet they were not the ring that I was looking for. With each bit of dross I was at first elated and then annoyed. So when I finally found the ring it was a distinct anti-climax, though I was greatly relieved to finally have it.

My next problem was what to leave behind in it place, as I could only take something away from the temple by leaving something of equal value behind in its place. I reached up to tap the circlet bringing it into view before removing it. I sighed as I watched the gems glow brightly and dim repeatedly. It didn’t seem all that fair of a trade, the mage gift and a different body in exchange for my birthright. Much less a royal circlet in exchange for a ring that might or might not give me the chance to save the land.

Maybe it was a fair trade, an end of a birthright for the endurance of the Land. Though in my heart of hearts I was far from happy about it. I dropped the circlet into the fairly large hole I dug and considered the small pile of gems and such. Surely that trade, my life as it would have been, would more than cover that paltry pile?

After a moments debate I pushed the whole pile into the hole as well, as I was hardly sure what was fair anymore; much less should I temp Fate herself, only to be proved wrong at some later time? Considering she fair but danced through my life with frequency of late. As fickle a lover as she might be to men and woman alike, I could scarcely afford her scorn.

In a moments ill humour I regarded the grave-like qualities of my labours. “Here lies Ari the Prince, but never to be the Queen,” I shook my head and tried to shake the maudlin mood from my mind. I slipped the ring onto the third finger of my right hand, next to the first ring. In some ways I was not surprised when the ring fit perfectly, in others I could not feel but feel distinctly odd.

I studied the ring during the time I ate and repacked my camp. On the ring were a circle, a square, a triangle, and what I took to be a sun with three rays descending from it. I frowned, as I supposed that just telling me what to do and where to go was against the ‘rules’. I turned it right and then left, but it seemed to have no effect on my person, unlike the other rings gift of invisibility. Once packed, I left things to lie after checking the ashes to make certain my fire was dead.

I then went to the wall that was covered the vines, after some brief moments thought, I apologized to the flowers for my next act. Custom, superstition, I don’t know exactly when I picked that habit up from, though I am fairly sure I got it from my N’relv cousins. It was not a bad thing, respecting nature that is, though I got more than few odd stares from my human cousins. ‘Oh it’s just weird Ari…’ had graced my ears from time to time. I wondered what they would make of me now. I snorted, as I supposed it would scarcely matter now, considering I looked entirely N’relv now.

After some scant minutes of work I had uncovered the corner of the wall and acquired a few pricked fingers as the vines defended themselves. As I sucked the blood from one yet dripping puncture I noted a stone that was different from the others. I walked closer and blew the dust from it, revealing a name and a city. I sighed and tried to think how far I might be from that city.

It was not uncommon for people who donated huge sums to the construction of a temple; to have a name stone with their city of origin on it. I myself had a few that my parents had set in my name upon my birth. The stone of its self was unremarkable, as was the city name of Anwerk. The name of the person oddly enough was N’relv, considering the city itself was largely human. Fennik Astairah, read the name in its common parlance then I translated the name into its N’relv components: Knowledge Guides.

“But where does it guide from or to?” I asked the ruins. Though I didn’t expect an answer at this time. I walked back to my pack and pulled the map case and compass from it. In some ways the small troop of soldiers went beyond what they should have surrendered. A compass was not a usual part of a soldier’s kit, so it had to have come from their commander. I made a point to remember to return it or get him a better one when I could. The map was of it’s own right a blessing as one of the cities marked upon it was the city of Anwerk.

I found the bridge I had crossed the night before on the map and then the city, trying to get a feel for the distance. ‘Walk swiftly’ indeed, for several long days it seemed. I made a rough stab at guessing the distance I had to travel to get there. It was a hand-copied map, so I had no guarantee the distance but it looked to be about twenty six leagues, perhaps about a hundred twenty or so miles. A few days easy ride by horse, yet I could possibly cover the same distance a foot in seven or less if I was lucky.

I carefully returned the map to its case and put it back into the pack. I spent a few awkward moments arranging the quiver and the pack. The long bow was not the best, though I did not doubt it would function well. I doubted Viit would have given me his bow, as he was likely their Archer First, well for that squad anyways. I shrugged a few times to settle the pack and walked out of the temple.

The sun was past its highest point, so I had a good six hours of light to go before I had to worry about nightfall and making camp. With that in mind I looked down at the compass and aimed for northwest as best I could. I figured with luck I would be out of the forest in a few hours and on a road shortly there after. I hoped the road to be safe now that every one was looking for Ari, and I was now ‘known’ to be Jonne, so with luck no one would know the wiser.

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Once dusk had barely fallen, I gratefully found myself at the edge of the forest, either the map was poorly drawn or I was a poorer woodsman. Though I expected the truth was a bit closer to the former, as I seemed to have little trouble in the woods. Which meant I could tack on a few more days of walking, wonderful. Though I should count myself fortunate for good weather, as my father had recounted a march to chase down bandits in the mud and rain.

“Had the bandits not been in the same weather they would have left us far behind them.” He later told me the harried march in the rain had exhausted the bandits to the point where they could not fight effectively. “Nature is a cruel general to fight against, so learn to use her to your best advantage when picking a fight,” he advised me when I asked of his time in the army.

As night fell, I wasn’t dead tired nor really feeling the miles yet, so I planned to walk until the need to sleep claimed me. As I crested a small hill I could see the lights of small town or village in the distance. It didn’t seem overly far away and with luck I could get a meal and a bed for the night. I did have a decent purse, probably too decent for my current attire.

At that thought I stopped and spent some time lightening my purse and secreting coins in my pack. The last thing I needed was the local lord to suspect my intentions or for thieves to decide I was a target. My thin story of who I was would not hold up to the light of a Clerics will. Truth Tellers are handy if you wanted to learn the truth, not so much if you needed to hide it.

With the pack once more upon my back, I thought longingly of a hot meal and perhaps a bath. Though the meal was held up as my first priority, followed quickly by a solid night of restful sleep. As my dreams, if you will, of the night prior hardly seemed restful in the light of day.  Of which it was night and as twin moons set their course from the horizon, they cast a dual shadow off to my left on the road.

It was with a hint of dismay that I found myself growing tired, the town’s light seemed closer so I pressed on. Putting one foot in front of the other, until I fell into a daze where the only thing in my mind was the image of those lights growing closer. Step, breath and step, was my quiet mantra for what seemed like an hour. And then I was abruptly startled into wakefulness by the hint of smoke in the air. I was in the lee of a hill so I walked quickly off the side of the road and up the hill.

In my foggy state I realized I was less than mile from the town, and that a portion of it was burning. I was dismayed in that it hinted of my plans for a meal were going away. The next concern I had was what should I do, evidently I had to go past the town, yet if it was bandits, and dare I risk helping the town? Did I dare not help the town if it was merely a bad blaze?

I sighed and twisted my ring to send me into invisibility and then I started jogging towards the town. A scant hundred yards from the town I stopped and dropped my pack by a lone tree. As I barely caught my breath, I could hear fighting in the town, which quickly banished this as being a mere blaze. With some trepidation I limbered up the bow and set an arrow to nock.

I did my best to keep to the shadows as I was uncertain how to aim an invisible bow. At close quarters aiming was not so much a factor as I only had to hold the bow level and shoot instinctively. Which meant being entirely to close to them for my own peace of mind. As I walked into town I could see that I only faced about ten men.

As far as towns go it was not that big, it likely only sported a handful of men capable of fighting effectively. So with luck they had bundled themselves in to a stockade or what served as their local temple. This vain hope of mine was quickly dashed as I saw a woman being drug from her house into the street. I ducked into a shadow and poked the arrow I was holding into the ground point first. I added a few more from the quiver then turned my ring so that I was visible.

As a few more men joined the man holding the woman in the street, I line up my shot. While I can’t say I would ever place high in any serious competition, my anger served to sharpen my aim. Once, twice, three times I fired from the shadows, then with a twist of the ring I returned to being unseen, picking up my fourth arrow as I did so. While my shots were hardly instant kills, as much as I could wish, I was simply not that familiar with this bow.

A part of me did not care as the woman fled screaming yet mostly healthy into the night. The cries of pain from the wounded men served to sow fear and uncertainty in rest of the bandits. For some reason I rather enjoyed the suddenly ensuing chaos among them, I watched for a moment as their leader tried to rally them into some sort of organization. I stepped out into the open about ten feet from the man, I sighed and tried to ignore the armor he wore. I doubted the arrow would pass though the chain mail, but I aimed and fired anyways.

It was a bit stunning both for me, and the men he commanded, as the leader slowly pitched over backwards clutching at his throat. Part of me was amused at the amount of fear and worry they suddenly developed. Evidently they didn’t think if fair that an unseen attacker picked them off. ‘Too bad,’ I thought as I moved half a dozen steps off to the left and counted arrows, I had three left and twice that many men to kill.

I took another arrow from the quiver and spent a few nervous moments nocking the arrow. I guess I was not as detached emotionally from the act of killing as I could hope. Maybe that was a good thing, but at the moment it was troubling. I picked out another man who seemed entirely too calm for the events, I could not tell what he was chanting but I figured it was a bad thing. I sent a quick prayer to the Goddess as I drew and fired. Either I rushed the shot or just aimed poorly, for instead of hitting him squarely, it lodged in his upper arm.

It stopped his chanting, which made me slightly happier, but I could not allow him to recover and start anew. I took a few steps closer and drew my throwing dagger, and with a quick solid throw I planted it in his gut. I doubted he would be able to chant with that distraction, either way I took off with a quick jog to get behind the circling men.

‘No sense fighting fair is there?’ I asked myself as I drew my last arrow. I wanted it to count, so I spent a few breaths trying to steady my aim. I picked out the largest of the men left; if it came down to a sword fight I didn’t want a brute to occupy my time. With a hopeful prayer I aimed as best I could, then I loosed it at him.

For a time I was almost certain that I had missed him as he seemed to just stand there unmoving. So it was with a shout of elation that I rejoiced when he collapsed bonelessly. Surprised at my luck and the shriek I had released, I darted into the shadows, holding one hand to my lips to stifle a bizarre laugh that wanted to escape. For a few long moments I knelt holding it in, then I surrendered to the urge.

My weird unseen laughter must have seemed eerie to the men, as they all but dropped their weapons in haste to flee in the direction I presumed their horses were. I didn’t much care at that time; I was too busy puking my guts out. Some hero I was, no injury, total success and yet I felt miserable. I waited for the shakes to pass, and then I went out to finish the job.

I can’t say I had any pity for the men that I finished off, though I didn’t enjoy their wild looks or panicked screams as I drove my rapier unseen into their hearts. Yes it was necessary, and yes I could have let someone else do the task. However, part of the burden of action was to follow through. I technically didn’t need a court of law, as I was Heir, and if they had lived long enough for a court; I was sure they would be hung. I think the driving need to see it through though, was for the sake of the lady they were nigh close to raping before I intervened.

I was developing a strong dislike for rape as of late, as it seemed to be foreshadowing every combat that I engaged in recently. I sighed and walked the well that resided in the center of the town. With a careless push I dropped the bucket into the well, then spent a few moments drawing it up. I slung the bow onto my back and used my hands to drink from the bucket. I then turned the ring so I was visible, and then shouted, “It’s over people, get those fires out!”

It took a few moments for a few heads to peek out of their doors, then the few turned into a flood. When folks seemed to be more interested in me that the fires, I stuck my fingers in my mouth and whistled shrilly. “Ok folks, you can talk with me when the fires are out.” I fairly yelled into the sudden silence. I pointed to a man who looked to be slightly better dressed than the others, “You there, what’s your name?”

“Rolph miss,” he stuttered out.

“Fine Rolph, you are in charge, get the fires out, if you can.”

I moved away from the well, watching as he processed that command I was tempted to enforce it with the point of my rapier, but I needed to retrieve my dagger. So I left the people to get organized, feeling the rush of blood fade from me, and a deep tiredness sink into my bones. I walked to the possible mage and studied him in the fires light.

He was a dark almost dusky black, which marked him as a definite outlander. As his hair was black and close cropped it ruled him out as coming from the plains people, they had a religious qualm about shearing their hair. It wasn’t curly, so that marked him as being as possibly from the Desert Kingdoms. His clothes were not uncommon, though the contents of a small satchel he had on him, were.

I didn’t know what to make of the various small bundles of herbs, yet one I knew for certain was a euphoric drug. Some of the elderly smoked it to chase pain away that was caused by the gnarling of their joints. I suppose it was cheaper than an effective healer, though most temples would do something. Even if it wasn’t a lot, admittedly they could only heal so many people in one day, but time was largely on the side of the people, if they would wait.

I dropped that to one side and flipped through the small but thick book. I didn’t recognize the language it was written in, which only confirmed him as being an outlander. I sighed and tucked everything back into the satchel. I gave his body a quick but thorough search turning up a small pouch of coins and a dagger that made me queasy just holding it.

I slid that back into the leather sheath where I found it, then cut his belt so that I could add it to the small satchel. Surely someone would know what to do with it and its contents, as it was I had the grizzly job of searching the other bodies, and to recover a few arrows if I was lucky.  Frankly, I didn’t much care to recover them, but I didn’t know when I could replenish them either.

When I was done with that task, I was three arrows richer, and sick yet again. Some hero I was turning out to be, the only thing to my favor was that I hadn’t peed myself. I sat for a time in the shadows, shaken and uncaring, just letting the past hours events wash out of my system with the tears. What was wrong with me? I didn’t break down into tears after I had killed the man at the trial. Yes my stomach had rebelled slightly, but I did not empty it on the field of that battle such as it was then.

It could be I was simply over tired and overwhelmed by events. I looked to the people who seemed to gain the upper hand in dealing with the blaze. They didn’t need my help, and well I was not in much shape to help them, if anything I had done enough for the night. So it was with some absence of thought I spent a few moments gathering my wits, then I walked out to where I had dropped my pack.

Once there I set the satchel and the few pouches I found off to one side, then unbelted my rapier, allowing it and the dagger to drop to the ground. Tiredly I unwove my hair from around the other thin dagger and combed though my hair with my fingers. I did spare a moment to fetch my blanket from the pack, and then I used the pack as a pillow and allowed sleep to claim me.

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I wish my night had been untroubled by nightmares, yet I cannot say I was entirely too surprised that I jolted awake and clutching at my dagger a few times. I am not sure how deeply I slept, though when I finally did awake, the sun was a good few hours in the sky. I remembered the state I was in last night, and the fact I had not really cleaned my sword, aside from a few quick brushes on the corpses. I groaned at painfully taught lessons and took the time to clean it. That done I checked my throwing dagger, it was clean, yet of which I cannot remember doing that.

My pack felt so much heavier than the prior day, though that was likely just from being sore, I had walked a fair distance the day prior. Not to mention the distance I jogged in my rush to the town. Oddly enough I felt emotionally better, even slightly relaxed, though I was a bit uncertain of things when I stopped at the well to fill my water skin.

In the short time it took to fill my skin a few people had gathered around the square. I sighed noting the soot marked faces and a hint of fear in their eyes. I glanced around and my eyes finally came to rest upon Rolph.  I offered him a slight smile, which seemed to embolden him.

“Miss, we don’t have much to offer…” He stopped when I raised my hand.

“If you can send someone with a horse,” I interrupted him briskly, ”there is a squad of soldiers half a days travel, back by the bridge that ways.” I pointed in the general direction I had traveled. “I don’t need anything, myself.” I eased the small satchel from my side and over my neck. “But you might give this to them when they get here, do not toy with the contents, as I am sure the blade inside is unpleasant if not unholy, and the spell book. Well, lets just say some things are best left well enough alone.”

I held it out to him and I was entirely too happy to let the soldiers chase after the remaining bandits. Once he took it I smiled and spared a moment to finger my mostly empty quiver, “If you have a Fletcher, I could certainly use a few arrows, as most of mine were well spent last night.”

“We don’t have a Fletcher miss, my grandson who does a fair job of it is off with the herd. But he may not be back for a day or so yet,” announced an elderly woman with some pride.

I looked around, as there were not many children or young men around, “So most of your men folk and such are off with the beasts?”

“Yes miss,” confirmed Rolph, “I run the tavern and inn, it’s nothing fancy mind you, but it suits me.”

I smiled and nodded politely, “Well I must needs be off, I have many leagues to travel. Do send someone for the soldiers, they may not find the others though if anything their presence will discourage others.”

Rolph laughed, “I doubt they slowed much last night miss, you put a serious fear into them I think.”

“We can hope.” I smiled grimly. “Anyhow, Goddess and Gods keep you all safely.”

“Miss, before you run off, would you share your name with us so we can at least tell the soldiers who did their work for them?”

I sighed, “I’m called Jonne, and I was only doing what was needed.”

“Aye miss, and not many would do that for strangers,” said a lady that I dimly recognized from the night prior.

“With in accordance to the Goddesses gifts, we all serve. In one fashion or another,” I nodded to Rolph and started walking out of town.

“Wait miss,” he hurried to walk besides me, “if you won’t take anything from us, would you at least take one of the bandits horses?”

I stopped and considered that, true it would speed my pace, but caring for it might be a problem. Not to mention the issue of who owned it if it were stolen. And I was not sure if where I was heading a horse would be practical or not. “I am not sure if I should, they might be stolen and well I don’t need that sort of trouble.”

“Ah, true I had not thought of that.” He sighed and looked around, “I do had a large side of smoked ham, surely you could do with some meat, as skinny as you are miss.”

“Only if it will not cause you hardship Rolph, it’s not in my nature to cause folks an undue burden.”

He chuckled, “My boy is out with the swineherd, so I think I can spare it.” He pointed off to his left, “The smoke house is off that way, come and I’ll cut you a fair portion.” He laughed, “It’s not like you could carry the whole pig away as it were.”

I felt a smile form, “True, I can bare but carry myself some days.”

“I’ve been that way myself a time or too, after harvest especially.”

“Drink overly much then?”

“Only if the year has been good, but then it takes much to ruin a year.”

“Your town doesn’t have a leader or headman?”

“Not since old man Giles died a few months back, an he was near older than the land.” He paused in front of a small shed that reeked of wood smoke, “Step back miss, and let the air clear for a moment.” Then he opened the door to let fresh air in.

When he went inside I hesitated then followed him in, “I think you may need to take the job, if it doesn’t interfere with things.”

“Well I have been, somewhat, I’m not much of a leader though,” he admitted.

“I am not sure what may befall in the next year Rolph.  I think it is safe for me to say dark times may be before us.”

I saw him hesitate as he lifted up a knife the smoked hog, “Go on.” He motioned to the pig and then started carefully shaving the meat.

“I’m no Sage or Seer Rolph, yet I worry for the land and its people.”

He nodded and glanced about, “Ah there is a likely cloth,” he announced and picked it up and folded a goodly portion of ham into it. “Jonne, one thing I know from my father is that the land is ever in change, if you watch the seasons you can see it.” He smiled, “The old bugger used to run with the N’relv when he was younger. Now he, gods watch over his crusty old soul, was a cunning bastard. An one thing I learned from him was to keep a full larder when it seemed things were heading into a winter.”

I smiled at the image he painted for me, “I see.  Well it may be time to sharpen a sword or two, just to be on the safe side, mayhap even find a few bows.”

“Are you fretting overly much?”

“No, as much as I could wish, I am not.”

He walked over to a table where a ball of twine sat, and then he tied the cloth shut neatly. “I will keep what you said in mind Jonne, when do you think the time to really worry might start?”

I was worried as to what to tell him, if the Mage King was coming upon the land it would take time to see the effects. “Rolph, the only thing I can fairly suggest is to watch the movement of the soldiers. If things get as bad I expect. You will see more and more of them.”

“That’s not good lass, then is it ever?”

“No Rolph, it won’t be. While I don’t know how many of my cousins are near here, I might suggest talking with them. Maybe even establishing a bolt hole if need be in the woods.”

He motioned for me to turn around, “I’ll put this in your pack for you.” I felt my pack grow heavier as he did so.

“Did you put the whole pig in there?” I asked uncertainly.

“Hardly lass,” I turned to see him smiling, “though you do need to eat more Jonne.”

“I get by.”

“Yes, but getting by won’t keep you fit to fight, if what my father would tell me is correct. An army moves on its stomach.” He stopped and walked over the hog, “You can eat this bit as you walk.” The then cut off a portion twice the size of my fist. “I trust you can find things to add to this in the forest and what not.”

I nodded as he handed it to me.

“Good, now see that you eat, I’d be sorely upset to hear you ended up sick.” He pointed a thick finger at me, “You can’t help others or yourself if you are half dead from hunger.”

I chuckled, “Yes Rolph, lesson learned.”

“You see that you do,” he added gruffly. “We don’t sing much of hero’s of late, but maybe in time, I think we might sing of you lass. An when we do I will remember last night.”

I blushed, “I am no hero Rolph.”

“You let me be the judge of that Jonne. Now you have some walking to do yes?”

“Yes,” I admitted.

“Then travel safely Jonne, Goddess bless you and your bow.”

“Her hand is on us all Rolph.”

He laughed, “Some more so than others, be well Jonne.”

“And you.”

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The next few days passed in relative peace though occasionally I did give way to a mounted patrol and a swiftly running mounted courier. Since they didn’t pay much attention to me I didn’t spare much attention to them, aside from a tired wave or with a finger to my lips if it were a N’relv. In some ways custom spoke volumes as to what I was doing or not doing.

When the road turned directly north rather than the way I thought I had to go, I stopped and dropped my pack. As fortune would have it the map and compass would be on the bottom. At which time I discovered a small cloth bag full of coins, admittedly it wasn’t a small fortune, but given whom it came, from I was still touched by the gesture.

A small note read:

We figured you either would ask for something or not. In either case take these with our blessings, it’s not a lot but it should help some. Do try and stay safe.

Rolph’s name headed a list of about thirty some odd others, though not all were named individually some were this family or the other. I noted the name of Fair Tree’s Hallow, which I supposed was the name of their small town or village.

I chuckled at a barely legible mark that could only have been a child’s scrawl. In some ways I wish they had not, as I was far from poor, yet I was warmed by it. I carefully tucked it in to the maps case after reading it a second time. It took me a few moments to decide on the best course to take, I could cut though the forest and may be shave a few dozen miles from my trek. Or I could follow the looping road as it went around the forest.

I noted a river an a bridge marked on the map, though it looked like I could simply walk through the forest until I encountered the river and simply follow it’s course to the bridge. I considered the advice of muddying my trail, a serious B’radian, in an intent search would find me with some effort. Anyone else might grow confused if I wandered from forest to forest. As the miles passed my earlier worry of a hound following my trail faded greatly, as hounds could only go so far without rest.

Of which only left magick as a ways to track me. As such, since one forest likely look like any other, I figured it was time to get off the roads for a time. I tucked the map and other bits away after cutting a good handful of ham to eat. I needed a bit more greens in my diet, but a careful watch as I walked should afford me easy forage of those. Once more I loaded the pack onto my back and set forth into the woods.

The forest was cooler than the cleared area to either side of the road, so that made things a bit easier. It wasn’t full into summer and I could tell the season would be a hot one. I took a moment to loosen my jerkin by a few buttons. Already I was wishing I had not lost the shirt, as the leather was taking on a strong gamy smell. I had expected it as bathing was a luxury as only the rivers and ponds would afford me. On that thought I smiled, as I would be hitting a river soon.

In my travels through the forest I more or less ate what I came across, though I did save a few roots and tubers to be cooked in my evenings fire. Every so often I would stop and use the compass, though I was not overly worried about the direction. As I would either wander back out to the road or run into the river. When I all but walked upon a clan’s marker stone I very nearly turned to head out of the woods.

Yet of any peoples they were less likely to bother me, and if they bothered me; I could merely say I was on Journey. Custom if anything, was turning into a firm ally so far. So it was with some amusement that I all but startled a N’relv huntsman into dropping his bow.

“Beg pardon cousin, I hope I have not ruined your hunt.”

“Not as such cousin,” he admitted with a smile, “I am more a mage than a hunter, but my elders think I should be both.”

“I’m Jonne,” I offered.

“I’m Rixthat of Mistriver,” he bowed slightly while replacing his arrow to its quiver. “You are far from home yes?” He was loosely dressed in a light gray shirt and a dark pair of trews. He had a small horn tucked into his belt and a dagger poked out of a calf high pair of boots.

“Yes, I’m on Journey, though I need to find a trades town or such.”

He nodded, “I took my Journey a few years back,” He gave me an appraising look, “You seem a bit young for Journey cousin, but custom varies.”

“It’s been an adventure in its own right.”

“It can be that. Still you are much quieter in the wilds than I am. I can’t believe you surprised me like that, though I do prefer the leaves of books to leaves on trees.” He shrugged one shoulder, “I’ve to find a deer yet but if your journey is not one of haste, you could walk with me.”

I considered that, “Well I have another few days of road until my next real stop.”

“My mother does cook well and by the looks of you a hot meal and a bath could not hurt either.”

“Thanks, I think,” I rolled my eyes as his pronouncement mirrored my earlier thoughts.

“I meant no slight,” he quickly added.

“None taken, I am a few days between baths and such,” I admitted with a smile.

He smiled, “I hated that part of my Journey the most, I didn’t much care for being grimy.” He pointed to his mostly clean attire.

“So you skipped the Color Trials?”

“I may try them next year, it’s not like they really know our ages that well.” He chuckled, “I had one cousin who was in his thirtieth year and they treated him as if he was half that.”

I shook my head in agreement, “Well I am heading towards the river in any case.”

“I would not recommend trying to swim it this time of year, it’s still fierce with the spring rains further up north.”

I sighed, “Is the bridge passable?”

“I think so, if not there is a rope bridge some ways further north of it that will clear it if nothing else.”

The cousins version of a rope bridge usually spanned from a pair of tall trees to another, a pulley on a tether afforded a quick crossing, albeit a high one. Wonderful. I frowned darkly, “Well with luck I won’t need it.”

I felt an odd wave of vertigo and I stopped abruptly, I glanced around to see him stopped as well. He held up a finger to his lips and he looked around wildly. I nodded and took a knee, freeing my bow for use. For a time we remained motionless scanning the area for a threat, then I carefully nocked an arrow and was hoping not to need it.

As the sounds of the wild remained active and had not fallen into a hush, I was not overly frightened, though I was worried. When he stood up slowly I did the same. “What was that?”

“Magick of some sort, I suppose someone was checking up on you?” he half asked, half stated.

“Possibly, nervous parents you know how it goes,” I sighed with some excessive force and he laughed.

“Oh they should relax in fifty or so years, but then I expect they will still treat us as if we were but infants.” He smile was as rueful as my own felt.

“Well if they were looking for me I don’t think it helped them much,” I gestured to the woods around us.

“Maybe not specifically, but some magicks can pinpoint a general area on a map.” He shrugged, “Though if they were simply scrying for you they may as well have not bothered.” He spent a few moments laughing quietly, “I had the same problem as my parents are mages. Eventually I had to shield myself from them as to have a moments ease.”

“How did you mange that?”

“You are mage gifted?”

“Yes, though I have not had any training, my father thought I should be more a field than more in a book.”

“I can sympathize, still you should have had some lessons.”

I shook my head, “Well I would have wished it were so, but my mother was of the same mind as they were both B’radians.”

“Parents.” He snorted in amusement; “In any case the easiest of ways to shield yourself from scrying eyes is to concentrate fully on your surroundings, letting your mind only focus on your environment. It’s the focused will that draws the attention of scryers.”

I gave him a bland expression, “That’s helpful.”

He grinned, “OK how about something more practical then?”

I shrugged and glanced at my compass angling a bit more towards north.

“Here,” he handed me a stick, ”fire is usually the first ability the mage gift frees. Watch.” He held up a second stick, “Burn,” he commanded it and a flame flickered forth from the tip.

“That can’t be all of it? You simply tell it to burn?”

“Well it is a bit more than that yes. Surely you have heard of the Intent and Command?” he asked with an expectant look on his face.

“Yes, though mostly I have to admit it mostly confused me.”

“You have seen the humans march about haven’t you?”

“Yes, though on occasion it struck me as fairly silly.”

“Well the leader of a marching group can redirect them with a simple word. His will, redirects the men with a simple command. Well in some ways a simple word with intent, accomplishes the same thing.” He was silent for a moment, “You may have to envision it burning.”

I eyed the stick dubiously, “Ok.” I admit that I felt fairly stupid looking at the stick expecting it to burn.

“You aren’t trying are you?”

I sighed and let the frustration of the past week leak out into my mood, I held up the stick and said, “Burn damn it!” For a moment the world wavered slightly and the stick exploded in a puff of flame and smoke.

In my stunned silence I could hear Rixthat laughing at me, evidently he thought it funny enough that he was rolling around on the ground. “Oh cousin, I think you may be over doing it slightly.”

I walked over and dropped the remains of the splintered stick onto him, “Really?”

“I am sorry, I shouldn’t poke fun of you, as I blew up my fair share of twigs too.” He pointed to my face, “I never understood what my bothers thought was so funny about it until I saw your face just then.”

“Lovely. So, how many sticks did you disintegrate before you could just make it burn slightly?”

“A few hundred, though my parents insisted I practice it far away from ‘civilized’ people, and near water.” He made the motions of pouring a bucket onto the ground.

I chuckled at his mixed expression. “Fun, I suppose I should not try that on my campfire just yet?”

“Only if the wood is completely soaked, and then you may be picking splinters out of your clothes for a week.” He frowned at my wide smile, then he smiled slowly, “You have to learn to laugh at yourself, I did that on my Journey.”

I covered my face with my hand hiding my smile, “You have my sympathies.”

He tossed me another stick, “Ok try again, this time without the pyro-kinetics?”

I stuck my tongue out at him and held the stick out at arms length and gave it another go with the same effect.

He shook his head, “Well you only have a few hundred sticks or so to go Jonne.”

I froze at the sound of movement, I held up a hand to quiet Rixthat before he spoke. I pointed to the direction it was coming from, as he picked up his bow I fetched an arrow from my quiver and waited for what ever it was to come into view. I watched as he prepared to draw for the shot, when I spotted a bight blue swatch of color I tipped his arrow up, sending it into the air.

At first he seemed indignant then he sighed, “My thanks cousin, I think my brother would not be amused if I mistook him for a deer.”

“Probably not, so was the deer only a pretext for send you out or can you actually hunt?” I asked with a grin.

The other N’relv laughed as he heard that comment, “Oh he can hunt when motivated or when he isn’t blowing up sticks.”

“Jonne, may I present my eldest brother Mistwalker?”

“Well, if you must,” I poked him in the side with the feathered end of my own arrow.

Mistwalker, I will admit was fair to the eye, and he dressed to favor himself. His black hair was held back with a tan strip of cloth, though he forewent the usual braid common to the N’relv men and women when in the field. His eyes were a shade that made the sky seem pale by comparison, and the rings therein only made them that much brighter. His shirt was a lighter blue, and was offset by the black vest he wore. A mottled blue and gray pair of hose were tucked into a pair of sturdy black boots, hardly field wear much less hunting clothes.  At his belt was a slightly curved blade not much longer than my arm.

I returned his half bow, “So were there any deer in your path or has fortune moved them to another’s range?”

“None that I did see, yet your fireworks were a bit noisy.” He chuckled, “So Rix, teaching your bad habits to others are we?”

“It’s not a bad habit but a needed lesson,” he said defensively.

“Well to be fair, I did ask him,” I interjected into what seemed to be an old sibling squabble.

Mistwalker nodded with a smile, “He’s got a good head for the mage craft, though his field skills…”

“Well I heard you tromping through the brush,” I said.

“Purely to my own safety, as I remember him nearly planting an arrow in his friends once or twice.”

“Mist is as quiet in the woods as his name would boast.” Rixthat admitted, “Though he can’t but barely spark a fire.”

“Guilty as charged.” He motioned to the direction he came, “Anyways welcome to our lands, and we should head home. Krise’s time is close so if we want to be there before our newest relative arrives…”

“Oh!” was Rixthat’s only comment before he started running, leaving me alone with Mistwalker. “Come on you two!” he called over his shoulder.

I shook my head, “If there is a path, I will be along directly.”

Mist frowned slightly, “It would be rude of me to leave you unescorted.”

“It’s a birthing, go. I have no doubt I can follow your brothers hurried trail.” I pointed to a broken branch and bent bits of grass.

He smiled, “Thank you cousin, it’s our sisters first.”

“Then by all means go,” I made to push at his shoulder but he was already in movement.

“It’s only half a league and there are some trail markers if you look for them,” He called pointing to a small pile of stones.

“Thanks, now run!”

He laughed and I did listen for his footfalls, then I shook my head, as he was indeed quiet. “I should be so quiet,” I said with some envy.

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I took my time following their trail, while Rixthat’s path was fairly clear to follow, his bother’s was a challenge. I smiled and used the time to work on my own tracking skills, as you could never pas up an opportunity to master something you ‘should’ know. My trail of lies would likely snare me if I at least didn’t show a measure of field craft. In many ways the frequency in which I was coloring the truth bothered me.

I spied a familiar herb growing off to one side of the trail, Maiden’s Balm. I frowned and took the time to collect a goodly portion, but not denuding any one plant. I was a woman for the time being or girl if you will, and could expect a cycle in a few days if not the next month. I was not looking forwards to dealing with that out in the wilds, but I doubted I would be able to rest in a city until it passed.

I took some time to tie the herb in several small bundles and fastened them to my pack to dry somewhat before I put them up. In the distance I could hear the sounds of music and some happy laughter, so I guessed that I did not have too far to go until I entered the enclave proper. A city by any name is still a city, a town is just a town, but an enclave is a wild thing as it would grow or shrink as the people flowed in and around it.

The N’relv people as a whole are not exactly nomadic by nature, though they rarely rest in any one place for more than a dozen years. They do have some semi permanent structures and homes, though they trade and build those as needed. So it is not uncommon for a family to show up and move in to a home that was only emptied a few days prior.  In some ways they are still recovering from the Near Ending, as they lost their great cities to the Darkness.

 I paused to greet the sentries and to ask where I might find the traders row, they gave me a few easy to follow directions and marked my name in their log. The logs were largely a hold over from the Near Ending as well, as families were scattered to the four winds by slavery and fighting. As it was impractical to scour the whole realm to find your kin, though some did in fact do that. The logs would travel every few months by courier to the Gathering of the Peoples, and would be open for people seeking to find track or trace of their kin.

In some ways it was handy for the kingdom as a whole as it acted as an adjunct to the census, and my great-great-grandfather had used it several times to know where to send relief when floods or fires where overly hard on the peoples. My father watched it carefully himself if only to keep up to date on the ebb and flow of the peoples.

I had no doubt I would be able to find Rixthat or his brother, as a birthing was a joyous time, which would warrant a large celebration. If there was more than one birth in the day, well, I might have some trouble, though I would be afforded a good meal or snack at any of them. I smiled at that, in some ways the N’relv were a livelier people than the humans.

Wooden structures that were part tent, and part tree house abounded as I moved further into the enclave. Artfully colored domes were painted with family and trade runes naming their services and wares. A trio of such domes, were much larger than the others, I noted that those were marked with the runes for the Gods and Goddesses, indicating a temple.

I took a time to fix their location in my mind, as if I could not find a hostel, I could likely rest there. A scant hundred paces brought me to a Bowers stall and I took some time to marvel at the finely inlaid bows and examined my gifted bow. I gave it a good going over and saw no need to replace it, though I did note the need for a good wax and that a new string was likely in order. The Fletcher was an elderly N’relv who watched me with some bemusement.

“Greetings young one, can I help you?”

“Yes elder, I am in need of a few things and some guidance.”

He chuckled, “Well you seem to have a good bow, if a bit plain. So that is not likely what you need guidance for that.” He motioned at it and I passed it to him. “Ah, Venre Easterlies work.” He pointed out the mark on the span, “She’s good though she would be a mite irked to see it in such shape.”

I fairly colored at that, “I could use something to help that, and I am replacing a goodly portion of my trail gear and clothing as well.”

“A long time a field then?”

“Yes Elder, and I have yet a ways to go.”

“Ah yes, so you are a Journey then or?”

“That and seeking knowledge as I go along the way,” I smiled ruefully at my choice of words.”

“A good life is filled with learning, still I would suggest Martek and his wife for clothing and Bethany for boots.” He pointed down to my legs and I sighed softly for the sight of a seam that was coming unwoven in them.

His eyes seemed to be measuring for a moment, then he handed me back the bow, and pointed to a small range, “Draw and shoot for me, I am not sure your bow is well fitted for your needs or height.”

I nodded and did as he bid, I was not too displeased with my effort and he grunted, “A fair shot,” he held a cord up to my arm then shook his head, “another if you will?” I drew and held for a moment as he measured my draw and at his nod I loosed planting the arrow a few finger widths apart from the first.

“That bow is a bit underpowered for you I think youngster,” he walked over to a rack and lifted a bow that was not as plain as mine. “Here, draw and fire with that.” He swapped bows with me and I noted the change in weight.

“It’s heavier,” I commented.

“Iron wood, it’ll take a bit more effort, but I think you have the arm for it.”

I nocked my next to last decent arrow and sent it to join the other two. I did notice a heavier pull and that my third arrow was neatly between the other two. “Nice, very nice.”

He smiled, “I try.”

“And succeed, though I fear for my purse, how much do you want for it?”

“Well with the trade for your old one, and I expect you need a few more arrows yes?”

“That and the proper things to care for it, as sure I do need them. And to keep her as in good of care as she deserves.”

He chuckled, “I was young once, I am called Danlin Mistriver.”

“I am called Jonne, is Mistriver being a clan name?”

“Yes, there are rather a few of us,” he smiled then waved a hand to encompass a goodly portion of the enclave.

I thought back to my first encounter at a river, “An would Laeolin be related to you directly then?”

His smile brightened, “Indeed, Laeolin is one of my grandkids sons, is he well?”

I nodded, “I saw him a handful of days back, I think he was a bit lonely as he all but flattered me to death.”

He laughed, “He is a wild one, I suppose I should expect him to visit in the next month?”

“I would not doubt it, though I might expect him to be busy for a time.

I watched him place my old bow off to one side and he selected a good leather bracer and tossed it to me, “try that on for size, no sense tearing up your arm.”

I spent a moment doing so and nodded as it fit well. “I am lucky to be without a bruise thus far.”

“Oh I think you would have been reminded of it after a time, not even the best archer can go without one overly long.” He smiled and pointed to his own, “Even I have need of one. Any favorite type of points?”

“I likely will need a mix, though I doubt I will need more than two or three blunts.” I thought about the fight a few days back, “Do you have anything that would work good against armor?”

“Depends on the armor, though why would you have need of those?”

I took some few moments to relate the fight with the bandits in the town, including how I felt during and after it.

“A rough time a Journey,” He shook his head. “It seems the Lady of the Hunt herself favors your arm, still I have a good handful of hardened points. Not the best for hunting, but should you need then, very good against all but those fancy full plate things the Humans bash at each others from horseback with.” He paused to walk back to a bench, “Still a shot in the visor will stop them too or joint and or the armpit for that matter.”

I walked back to where he was seating himself, “It will take me a bit of time to make them up, an hour at the best, though you will want the glue to dry a day. So as to price, ten gold and say eight silver should cover things with the trade of your old bow.”

I nodded and made a motion to get my purse from my belt.

He chuckled, “Not trying to argue me down in price?”

I smiled, “Oh I could haggle for an hour or so,” I studied the bow I was buying; as my own bow at home was three times as expensive and nowhere as good. “But I know good work when I see it, if anything I might be taking advantage of your generosity.”

He laughed, “Oh I expect I’ll be rewarded enough if you send more customers my way.”

“Oh that I would do.” I smiled, “I may find my way back here before Mid-Winters Night.” Then I spent some time counting out the price he asked.

“Come back either at dusk or in the morning and they will be ready for you. If you like you can leave the bow here as well and I will make sure it’s waxed as well.”

I passed the bow to him, “Thank you Danlin, if I can escape the birthing celebration before dark I will be here.”

“Who is the mother to be?”

“I think Rixthat said his sister was name was Krise?”

The elder smiled, “Well in that case I will see you in the morning then, they are kin as well to me.”

“Until morning then?”

“Aye morning and with luck I will not be addled over much from drink.” He shook his head, “There is a hostel a few hundred paces towards the west or the temple would likely grant you a spot if you cannot afford it?”

“A hot bath sounds good, but first clothes and things.”

“Left and round the corner young one,” he pointed off to one side.

“Thank you elder,” I bowed and smiled at his nod.

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By the time I escaped to the hospice and a hot tub for soaking, I had put a serious dent in one of my purses. Though I finally felt ‘properly’ equipped by my standards. I could wish my pack to be lighter than it was, but a portion of that weight was food and an extra skin of Meade. I admit I splurged a bit on that, but I figured I was due a small luxury. As I did keep to mostly field worthy clothing suitable to a B’radian and some ‘womanly’ things, not to mention a good pot of bug balm.

I did buy one set of celebration worthy clothes, a light blue Weaver-Silk shirt that was cut in the warriors style, and a brownish rust colored vest and sash. I skimped on the trews going with a new but mottled gray and black striped fabric. I would be able to use those as field pants if pushed to it, but the fabric was a bit soft to put to hard use. I traded my old boots for a pair of similar style but better construction. If I were to stay a few days I could have had my other pair resewn, but I was fretting slightly over time.

I was reluctantly called away from my bath by a girl who worked at the hospice, as evidently Mistwalker thought I was lost and figured I needed a guide. I did make him wait as I mostly dried my hair and combed through it for the first time in several days. I bound my hair up in a bun with a pair of ornate clips, one was marked for the Lady of the Hunt and the other was marked for the Goddess herself. Of which I figured could not hurt in the slightest, considering events as of late.

When I graced him with my presence I think he was pleased with my attire, as we were nearly a matched pair, “I think my bother may be envious of me.”

“Oh?”

“Well he was the first to spot you.” He smiled, “Though he’s been fussing over his niece and our sister something fierce.”

I smiled, “So when is the naming?”

“Not overlong so we should be heading to the temple. That is a nice style for you I think,” he touched upon my hair clips lightly before offering his arm.

“I thought so,” I was rather pleased in that he noticed them first, rather than my other assets, which meant either his mother or sister had a hand in civilizing him for gentle company. One thing I had learned from my year as a woman, before this, was that males of either race seemed to focus there. To the exclusion of all else, well the rude ones anyways.

It was with some trepidation that I entered the temple, though I should have felt comforted by the general flavor of the temple. It was not apparently dedicated to any one God or Goddess, but all of them. There were various niches marked for the primary ones that the N’relv favored, which closely echoed my own choices. The extended family seemed to be gathered before the Goddesses place in the temple.

Mistwalker lead me around to the side near front by his family. I could see Rixthat standing fully armed and armored, yet marked for celebration rather than war. I smiled as his wink and shrug for the ceremonial armor he was wearing. By custom he was going to be Protector for his new niece, a sad but necessary hold over from the Near Ending: was the need for a warrior whose sole duty would be to the protection of children. While his main focus would be for his niece, any child could come to him for protection.

One good thing that came from the Near Ending was that child abuse was a rare thing, in either culture. Yet it did happen or worse. Though I am not sure I would like to suddenly be faced by a few hundred or so angry Protectors of the Small. Such events usually were followed by the sudden death the person who did wrong. I think, of the few crimes that have the harshest of punishments: Rape and the willful death of a child rank the worst, the penalty for treason was mild compared to those crimes. Which suited me to no end.

By my being on journey I technically was considered as being a ‘child’. I was not entirely happy in that regard, as I did enjoy dallying from time to time with the cousins. But considering all things and my renewed virginity I was concerned that the Goddess was tasking me as her Hand and as Priestess.

If so I would have to wait to cure that itch, inwardly I sighed as some of the cousins were damned attractive, as were the brothers. So it was not an onerous chore to grace Mistwalker’s arm, though a few ladies took exception to my presence. I did carefully point them out to him so that he and his brother could collect them once his ‘duty’ to me was done. After all if I could not relax in that manner with them it would be rude to not give them their chance. Though by the way the Blessed Mother was eyeing me, I expected my evening to be occupied, not exactly a fair-trade if you asked me.

The ladies I had marked out for Mistwalker and by second hand to his brother seemed greatly pleased to have them to themselves. I was happily enjoying my second plate of the evening, though I was working on sampling the various deserts and a glass or so of wine. Thus I was found when the Revered Mother found me, inwardly I all but cringed when she named me by name.

“Are you well Ari or does the name Jonne suit you now?” she asked and I studied her for a time noting her highborn coloration and her advanced years.

“Jonne if you please Blessed One.” I motioned with my wine glass, “While I doubt I need fear for my life here, I don’t wish to draw the idle ear either.”

“You seem well if a bit skinny, youngster,” she commented with a warm smile.

I chuckled softly, “It must be so as I have heard it a few times now.”

“Your parents are worried for you.”

“I could not expect otherwise, yet it seems that entirely too many eyes are looking for me.”

“Yes that idiot Proctor has been beside himself. Collectively we think is not a bad thing that they look for Ari, and may not see Jonne.”

“It just removes other options from me. I feel like a puppet in a badly scripted play,” I complained to her.

“Surly the change is not unacceptable, you are pleasing to the eye, if the men folks attentions towards you seem any indication.”

“It’s not so much the change that bothers me, aside from it was a choice forced upon me.”

She laughed softly, “Young one, you protest a bit loudly yet I do not hear any real pain there.”

I considered that and nodded, “It isn’t my chief wounding. It’s the Mage Gift, I.” I sighed and took a deep drink of wine, “I can’t rule now, what of my birthright and my father’s hopes, why that?”

“What if I told you that the Mage Gift was in you all along, and the circlet was but a lie?” I noticed a soft white glow around her face. “Dearest daughter, sometimes the truth does hurt, would you willing have lived that lie?”

“No, but I would have lived so much happier without it or knowing of it either.”

“Yet knowledge guides, young Ari,” she stepped behind me to gently hold me as I cried silent tears. “Our sister and daughter is pleased in your use of Jonne’s name, and in your actions. I can find no fault in your actions beloved daughter, though you do stretch the truth some,” she chided me slightly though she had a soft smile on her face.

I sighed tiredly, “I don’t have too much choice there, and if the Proctor has everyone looking for the Spoiled Brat I cannot exactly be me. I am oft times worried that I will slip overly much in the truth.”

She chased a tear from my face with a soft touch. “Oh child I would spare you this if I could. Yet if you must name an enclave, Oak Basin is safe as Jonne was from there. Our beloved daughter there will protect you in that manner.”

“And of my own name, can I ever reclaim it?”

She silently held me for a moment and I felt a deep loss stir, “Maybe in time daughter, though for this year and a day know that my hand is upon you.”

“Is this my year of service?” I asked cautiously.

“It’s not such a hard thing is it? Surely you can be celibate for that long yes?” her voice took on a teasing air.

“Well the buffet is so very enticing,” I motioned to the two brothers as they spent time with the ladies.

“Child you are a delight, you know my servants are only celibate if they choose to be so?”

I nodded and she pinched me lightly, “After the first year and a day. Though I may expire from want in the mean time, I remember shedding that side of me as soon as I could.”

She laughed and gave me a swift hug, “I did notice that dearest child. Now I needs must go see the newest one here, though you are never far from me.”

I smiled a nod to the child, “No rude surprises I trust.”

I saw a her eyes shine for a moment with mirth, “Should I rename her Ari, so your name is yet heard?”

“Only if it draws her no ill, I would not wish for her destiny to become so muddled as mine.” I sighed at her frown, “In time Mother I may be content, in some ways it burns me yet.”

“Mourning what may not be dearest Jonne, will not make it come or go. Living fully for the day, might though or it might at least ease that loss.” She placed both hands upon my shoulders and looked into my eyes for a moment, “Live young Ari, live fully for all the people’s sake, live.”

I nodded as the elderly Revered Mother smiled back at me, “Yes Jonne, live for us all.” She stretched slightly and stepped back half a pace, “I do love her touch, yet I have never quite grown used to being her voice.”

“A touch over whelming?” I asked with real curiosity in my voice.

“Some, and I well it seems to stretch me a bit.” She smiled, “Though it warms me too.”

I took a sip of wine, “She certainly has that effect on me as well.” I studied her black robes, “I suppose I should be grateful I am free to choose my own wardrobe.”

She laughed, “Oh child we only wear these things when we are her hands and voice, the other times we are quite the colorful crowd.” She lifted a sleeve to show a thin but vibrant green layer under it. “Even then we may be her hands, for all acts of pleasure are a delight to her.”

“I should pay my respects and find my bed.”

“Oh and Jonne?”

“Alone, yes I know alone,” I sighed with an eye to the males in attendance.

She smiled, “I was going to say how those hair pins do suit you, and yes. Alone.”

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I awoke to an empty bed and a full head, which seemed an awful trade if you asked me. Yes I know, celibacy is a sacred vow to prove intent and discipline, however it seemed a bit much on top of the other things. I carefully made my way to the baths and treated myself to a fresh hot bath, as I was certain it would be a few days until my next one. Not to mention I was reluctant to quit civilization, very reluctant.

Though about the time I felt a wave of vertigo hit me I reluctantly pulled myself from the tub and set to leaving. I figured I had at least one more bit to buy or barrow, as I needed some sort of guidance, magic wise. I could not go around with every one scrying for me or worse yet, if the legends were true striking at me or others from a distance. So it was with a sense of fleeing time I collected my bow from Danlin.

“Bright the day young one,” he called a bit loudly to me and I winced slightly.

“Yes it is bright,” I agreed

“You did seem a bit intent on the vine last night.” He chuckled at my obvious headache, “Did you eat yet?”

Why was everyone trying to fatten me up? I shook my head, “Not yet I was hoping to enjoy a late morning yet events moved me.”

“Jeanne, my daughter has a small eatery a few blocks that way, you could get a few hot rolls and such to eat.” He motioned to his work table, “Come I have your things ready for you.”

I followed him back and blinked at the amount of arrows in a new quiver, next to it was my new bow and a few other items that would help me take care of it. I saw him smile, “Consider it a Journey gift, The Revered Mother was worried you might that you might need them and not have them.”

I blinked at the implication of that statement, “Goddess I hope not, my hands are bloody enough.”

“True lass but she also said I was to prepare as for a dark time. Since I equip a great many B’radians I took that for fair warning.” He shook his head, “An your hands are not those of a murderer, you acted to preserve the good and just people of the land. Now if you did nothing, you might have to deal with that pain as well.”

“I need to find a good mage and get a book or something on the mage gifts. I have them I just don’t know how to use them, aside from blowing up sticks.”

He laughed aloud at that sending a spasm though my head, “That sounds like my grandson Rixthat, now he had a time of it. Though if it’s any indication for your ability with the gift; yours is no small one.” He motioned that I should remove my old quiver. “I’ll put it to good use in a few weeks, got a bunch of kids getting ready for their own Journey, one of them will likely need it.”

I dug out one of the pouches I took off the bandits, “The bandit I killed didn’t need this anymore, so if it helps the kids, so much the better.” I set it on the bench.

“It’s not going to set you back or hinder your own Journey will it?”

“No, the bandits were doing well, though their wealth didn’t help them much in the end.”

He chuckled, “Don’t cry over much for them, they made their bed and now they lie in it.” He handed me the new bow, “I marked your arrows at the quill,” He pulled out two and pointed to the row of thread on one and not the other, “In the dark you will know which if a hunting arrow and which is a man-killer, I gave you only a few blunts like you asked, they have two rows of thread on them. Feel for them.”

I reached to the quiver and to the arrows, even mixed among the score or so of arrows I could pick them out. “I see or feel rather.” I smiled at him, “Thank you.”

“Not a problem, you take care of your bow and it should take care of you. If you were not heading out into rough times,” he stopped at my frown. “Sorry lass but she said you should expect it.”

“Lovely,” I sighed. “Well fretting about it won’t make it not happen.”

“True, you should find Rixthat, I am sure he can part with his old books, and if nothing else he knows where to buy those things.”

“Thanks I’ll do that.”

“And Jonne?”

“Yes?”

“Do eat lass, you’re a bit skinny.”

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Let nobody say I don’t take good advice, I found Jeanne’s ‘little’ eatery. N’relv humor is a bit different as the eatery was of a good size and busy. I had to shake my head if this was small, I would need a map in a large one. Still I managed to get a good meal and one in my pack to eat later, some sort of bread wrapped sausage.

Finding Rixthat took some time but considering I was gifted I could not just go with out asking for his advice. Seeing how Fate so kindly dropped him in my path. I shook my head, as Fate wasn’t exactly being subtle of late, which bothered me to no end. Of all the Goddesses she worried me the most, she’s tied up with destinies and no end of good or bad luck. If she was at odds with my path I could rest assured of a messy ending.

I found Rixthat by not quite running into him, as he was rolling a small cart of boxes into a small shop. “Bright the Day Jonne.”

“Bright the Day Rixthat.”  I watched him as he moved the cart carefully out of the door, “Don’t mind the mess, I didn’t get up until a scant bit ago.”

“So did she offer to have your first born or was she only a dance in the night?”

He sputtered for a moment then sighed, “You are as overly perceptive as my sister. Not a bad thing mind you but a bit disconcerting.”  He motioned to a chair, “Rest your pack a bit, I have a few things for you.”

“Nothing too heavy I hope?”

He chuckled evilly, “Now where did I put that brick?”

“You’re in a mood, so how was it.”

“Wonderful. She’s threatening to kidnap me and feed me up properly. I could find you a likely partner if you like?”

“No as tempting as it might be, I have a year and a day to whet my appetite,” I shrugged with a wave towards the temple.

“Celibacy was not for me.” He chuckled, “Though I hear it’s traditional for Her servants. Are you living in interesting times cousin?”

“And then some, I need a book or guide so I can come to terms with the mage gift.”

“Blowing up sticks isn’t enough fun for you?” He pointed to a candle and it flamed into life “The mage gift is not an easy gift to tame, you are going to have to practice day after day until you can make a small flame like that one.”

“Well since I have it, I had best control it right? I would not like to be held accountable for accidentally telling someone to drop dead, and them doing it.”

“You have a point,” he chuckled, “and it could happen if you were angry enough. So self-control is a huge factor as well. If I was of the meddling nature, I would be paying your parents a visit and discussing your lack of training with them.”

I laughed at the image he provoked in my mind and the revelation that the circlets were a lie. My father, if he knew, had some explaining to do in private. “Well they never held much stock with the mage gift so you might as well save yourself the trip.”

“So what do I do with you? I spoke to the council on your behalf, but they were more worried that you be overly delayed on your Journey. When I tried to get the Revered Mother to act, she suggested that I gift you properly.” He motioned to the door and a faint glow arose to cover it. “So Jonne, amongst us alone, I would like a few solid answers.”

I eyed the glowing door nervously, “Only if you can guarantee no one will overhear, by magick or otherwise.”

He motioned to the door again and it glowed a sullen purple, “Ok, for a time no one can.”

“I thought the Intent and the Command, well the Command anyways, needed to be spoken?”

“I am speaking it, I just do not open my mouth.” He smiled lazily, “Something I picked up when I saw a few mages get knocked out of a fight when they spent over long in chanting or they would draw attention to themselves by shouting commands like ‘burn’ at the top of their voices. So Jonne, what makes your Journey so special?”

I sighed and for a moment wondered what Fate had set upon me this time. “My name isn’t Jonne and if you would know of it, I was once called De’Ne’Ari.” At his slightly stunned expression I added, “I was the Heir.”

It was amusing for me to watch him process that bit of information. “So, I thought the Heir was male?”

“I was, though I often used a Ring of Changes to escape the burdens of my life.” I removed it and tossed it to him, “The Goddess moves in odd ways and now I am entirely female and N’relv.” I shrugged, “That Ring of Changes doesn’t work on me and I have no idea if one will ever again.”

He walked over to a small chest of drawers, he opened one and pulled out a ring, which he tossed to me while looking at the one I had gave him. “Here try that one.”

Both of his eyebrows rose upwards as I slid the ring off and on a few times. At his thoughtful look I slid it off and set it on the arm of the chair.  I was not exactly resigned to it yet, even though the Goddess pretty much hinted I was female for the duration, if not longer. “See?”

“Rather amazing, I made that not a few days back for a friend of mine, he ran afoul of a Change Field tracking an outlaw. Both he and the outlaw are now female, though the outlaw doesn’t care to change back.” He chuckled, “I think the outlaw has her eye on him, and once she works off her debt,” he made a snaring motion. “I have no doubt they will end up wed.”

I smiled, “Well being a woman isn’t a hard lot to endure, though it has a few rough bits on occasion.”

“So if I may be so bold, if you are the Heir, where is your circlet?”

“Buried in the ruins of a Temple of the Moons. I still have my signet ring, if that helps?”

He waved his hand and it and the other two rings started to blow brightly, “Hmm, no I don’t need to see it, so Ari, what is the Heir doing so far from home?” With a second wave the glow faded.

I sighed and spent the next hour telling the entire tale to him, with the demonstration of the rings invisibility. Several times he seemed alarmed by my casual take on the Mage King rising anew.

“Jonne, and it is best I think of you with that name, you should not be out there all alone.” He stood up and glanced at the small shop, “By all rights I should drag you to the Council and make them hear reason, you are but just a child now. If you share our slow aging as well.”

“Rixthat, as much as I would love to run home and cower behind locked doors it won’t help my parents or the Land. If I read things aright the Mage King, whoever he is will strike at either my family or me first. If I run home all our eggs are in the same basket. Here, out and about, I am that much harder to hit.”

“Then you should get rid of your signet ring in the river and do it swiftly, your other rings are not tied to you and your family.” He motioned to the door and it faded away, “From now on you are naught else but Jonne, forget your family name and do not think overly long or hard on your family. Lest you reveal yourself.”

I blinked at that, but nodded. “So what should I do to learn the gift?”

That caused him to frown, “I can come with you.”

“No.”

“Now Jonne you are rushing headlong into danger and you don’t want help?”

“Its not that I don’t want it.”

“Has anyone or any deity said you are not to have help?”

“No, though I am fairly certain the Journey the Goddess set me on is my path only. Fate seems to have been helping me, but dare I stretch her favor overly much?” I felt torn in that I really wanted company and did not yet dare it.

“Then let chance decide.”

“What, how?”

He opened a small drawer and pulled out a gold coin, “Staves or temples?”

I sighed, “Temples you stay, staves we go, fair enough?” He nodded reluctantly and tossed the coin up into the air.

At the highest point of its path, the coin stopped dead in the air and glowed brightly for an instant. It slowly lowered itself to the ground and then right before it touched down, it flipped over to show the temple side up. We both looked at each other from over the coin.

“I don’t suppose it can get any plainer than that?” I asked the ceiling with a sigh of annoyance.

“Damn, Jonne…” he trailed off looking upset and frustrated.

I leaned closer and kissed him on the cheek, “I know cousin but it can’t be helped, I surely am not going to argue that with Her.” I gave him a hug, “So Rixthat, what should I work the hardest on first?”

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Fortunately for me the bridge across the river was safe to use, though the river was roiling under it. For a time I stood there watching the muddy water rush by, then I looked at my signet ring. Reluctantly I removed it from my finger, then as the tears tricked down my face, I let it drop. Almost instantly it was gone from sight and then I felt a hand on my shoulder. At Rixthat’s gentle tug I turned and was enwrapped in a hug, “I hate having to give up all my ties to home.”

“If you can not go home after your Journey or even should your family forget you, you will have a place here.” He offered with a smile, he then handed me a ring, “This should mask you somewhat from prying eyes, though I can find you with it, but then again I made it.”

“Thank you, Rixthat, it means a lot to me.” I smiled and let go of him, “I have a hunch you are going to be a very good Protector.”

“I expect you’ll be in a song or three, do try to avoid being in a tragedy,” he said and pointed to the ring. “The spell for that is covered in the green book I gave you, but you will need to work through the red one and get a grip on the fire exercises first.”

“Ok,” I gave him a tight hug. “I have to get going. Though expect to see me once this mess is over and done with.”

“Good, I will be more than interested in how you fair.”  He chuckled and held up the gold coin, “I am going to rework this into something special for Fate or her alter anyways.”

“I think she would like that, give her your best efforts.”

“Oh I would,” he smiled and pushed at my shoulder to move my reluctant feet. “Off with you, may the Goddess watch over you, and the Lady of the Hunt steady your aim.”

“And you as well, though I expect you to work on your field craft too.” I remembered how easy his trail was to follow compared to his brothers, “Get Mistwalker to ‘really’ teach you if you have to.”

He nodded, “I will,” he pointed up to the sun. “You have a few good hours of light left, don’t waste them.

“Ok I am going, I am going,” I said reluctantly and turned to go.

When I reached the bend in the road that would hide the bridge from my view I stopped to look back and noted that he was yet watching after me. In some ways I found myself wishing he was my brother, as I think he would be a good one. In some ways I envied his niece as I could bet she would be well looked after.

(Thus endeth the chapter but not the tale.)